DISCLAIMER: All "Dark Angel" characters belong to James Cameron and Charles Eglee (Cameron Eglee Productions) and "Dark Angel" itself belongs to FOX.

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Genetically Empowered, Inc.
By Valjean

The 13th and final continuation story in "The Best Laid Plans" universe. (rated R for language, violence, sexuality) -- author's note

*************************************
"How long has it been since you heard from him?" Logan asked.

Max didn't look at him, instead concentrating on gently rocking Brac's cradle, a little smile on her face as she watched her baby sleep. "He was at the New Manticore base just last week," she said lightly. "It's not like he's disappeared."

"I know," Logan said. "But how long has it been since you talked to him?"

A month. Alec hadn't been back to Corsica for a whole month, ever since that night they'd argued about the money he'd gotten for selling Manticore's DNA database to the South Africans. He hadn't been back to see her ... see his son ...

"Max?" Logan prompted.

"Alec's not going to talk to me until I make the first move," Max said, deliberately not answering the question. "He's just like that sometimes. After all, I'm the one who told him to go away." She looked at Logan defiantly. "Joshua's with him, though. And I can reach Alec if I need to. He'd come if we really needed him."

Logan walked over to the cradle and looked down at the tiny sleeping child. "If he were my son, nothing on earth could keep me away from him ... from you," he said quietly. "But then Alec always was a fool."

"Alec's not a fool," Max said, jumping to the defense of her mate. "He's ... trying to prove something." Although what that is I haven't a clue.

"People ... transgenics and transhumans ... have been disappearing from the New Manticore base the past few weeks," Logan said, looking sideways at Max. He adjusted his glasses on his nose. "You wouldn't know anything about that would you?"

Max shrugged. "Not a thing. I'm not exactly in the loop way out here in Calvi, what with all the time Sandeman's been spending with me. He's working day and night on that vaccine, and he keeps coming back to me for samples of this and that."

"He's not hurting you, is he?"

Max heard the concern in his voice, and couldn't help marveling at what a different person Logan Cale was when Alec wasn't part of the picture. Ever since he'd arrived last week, Eyes Only had been nothing but helpful, kind, and polite. And she had to admit, it was nice to have some company. Ever since Alec had left and taken Joshua with him she'd been both lonely and a little bit afraid. After all, Madam Renfro still stalked the halls of Herman Sandeman's Corsican castle, and she was enough to give anyone nightmares.

How could Alec leave me and his son all alone here?

"Max?" Logan prompted her again. "Sandeman? He's not hurting you?"

"No," she said quietly. "At least not if he can help it. They need the biological samples, but he's a lot more gentle about how he gets them than Manticore ever was -- plenty of local anesthetic, a general if it's going to be too invasive ..."

"So, you're basically a lab rat?"

Max looked at him with weary eyes and a wan smile. "Basically. But then I guess that's what I was created for -- a vessel to hold the cure to this plague White's people have unleashed on the world."

"You're not a vessel, Max," Logan said quietly. "At least you never were to me. You're a beautiful, vibrant, young woman who should have her whole life to look forward to. Instead, you're tied down here as nothing more than a lab experiment."

"I'm more than a lab experiment," Max said, looking at Brac.

Logan followed her gaze and frowned. "Is he healthy?".

"Sandeman says so. Except they think he might have inherited the serotonin deficiency."

"That's not good," Logan said, his frown deepening.

"No," Max said. "It isn't. But they're not sure yet. His levels are low, but not critical. They're not supplementing him yet. We just have to watch him closely."

Brac gave a little cry and waved his arms. Max picked him up, went over to her bed, sat down, and opened her blouse to begin nursing.

Logan averted his eyes. "You know," he said, still looking away. "I can't believe Alec left you and his son here, and hasn't so much as called. What on earth do you suppose he's up to? Lydecker thinks he's responsible for the missing mutants back at the base. Mole, Dix, and Luke disappeared three weeks ago, then just this past week Gem, Maxine, and that kid Dalton were gone as well."

"I don't know," Max said truthfully. "I don't know where Alec is or what he's doing. And I don't know about the others either."

"You say you can reach him?"

"I can reach Joshua. I gave him a cell phone before he left with Alec."

"What about Alec's cell?"

Max concentrated on watching Brac. "I tried calling him once," she said softly. "The number's out of service."

"Nice," Logan said, his voice cynical. "Real nice. But then Alec always was such a responsible guy."

Max started to defend Alec again, but stopped, unable to speak the words. After all, what could she really say? Alec was gone. He'd left her and the baby, and she didn't even know where he was. Unpredictable? Untrustworthy? Irresponsible? Selfish? It was as if a little demon was whispering in her head.

Logan just watched her and smiled.

*****
"Luke got the second generator working," Joshua said, coming up behind Alec as he stood on the beach.

Alec turned around. Of course he'd heard the big guy approaching, but the view of the ocean at this time of evening when the sun was setting was spectacular, and he hadn't been able to bring himself to look away. Max is gonna love the beauty of this place.

"Alec?" Joshua said. "Did you hear me? Luke got the second generator working. We have enough electricity now to run the satellite system and the computer."

"What about fuel?" Alec asked, forcing his mind back to the practical.

"With what we brought in on the last boat trip we have enough for maybe a week."

"Hopefully by then the guys will have gotten those solar panels up and running," Alec said. "And with the solenoid storage cells we shouldn't have to worry about power any more -- 'least so long as the sun keeps shining and we don't try to run air conditioning in the barracks."

Dalton came trotting up the beach, leaving bare footprints in the sand.

"Those pirates stayin' in their cove?" Alec asked, his eyes lighting up at the site of the happy X7. This was probably the first time in his life Dalton could truly act like the kid he was -- no razor wire, no guards, no fear, just lots of open space and sunshine.

Dalton grinned and nodded, but then grew serious as he reported to the man he considered not only his commander, but his hero. "I watched them all afternoon, sir. Both of their boats are still moored and it doesn't look like they're gonna leave any time soon."

"Good," Alec said. "We don't need them jumpin' a rich man's yacht out on the water somewhere and leadin' an international police squad back to our doorstep.

"Those pirates are going to be trouble," Joshua said. "Have you thought about what to do yet? Sooner or later they're going to know we're here, on this side of the island."

"When I signed the papers for this piece of rock, the agent said there were a few squatters in the east cove," Alec said, shaking his head at the memory. "He didn't mention that we'd be playin' Pirates of the Caribbean with forty well armed mercenaries." He glanced at Dalton who was running back and forth in the surf. "I don't want a fight if I can help it," he said. "Not with only the seven of us here, plus Gem's baby."

"Mole says five to one odds aren't bad for transgenics," Joshua said.

Alec grinned. "Mole just likes a good battle. But if we go that route we're gonna hafta kill 'em all. Maybe no one would care. In fact, we'd probably be doin' the rest of the world a favor. But maybe someone would come lookin' and then there'd be even more trouble."

"Alec," Joshua said, his blue eyes serious. "You brought us here. You have the money. You're making the decisions. You have to take care of this before something bad happens."

"Always ready with the guilt trip, aren't ya, Big Fella," Alec said tiredly, running his hands through hair that was the longest he'd ever had it in his life. He eyed his friend. "You know we had to start movin' our people out of Lydecker's little trap. Senator McKinley got that law passed last month, the one that says all transgenics and transhumans have to be sterilized so we won't breed and contaminate the human gene pool. If the Army starts seriously implementing that, our kind are sittin' ducks at New Manticore."

Joshua was watching Dalton. "That's why you brought him here, isn't it?" he said. "And Gem and Maxine? To protect them first."

Alec smiled mirthlessly. "Yeah. Figured they'd be better off on a tree covered volcanic rock a hundred miles off the coast of New Zealand. What's a little inconvenience like no phone, electric, medicine, or food and water for that matter."

"We have food and water," Joshua said. "The spring on the mountainside is fresh, and there are wild pigs, goats, deer, and fish in the sea. Plus, you brought in supplies."

"Yeah, I'm a real Robinson Crusoe," Alec said wryly, wondering for the thousandth time how he'd gotten himself into this. I know how. It's because I did something really stupid again -- buying an island for God's sake. Just wait until Max finds out. She's gonna kill me, if she doesn't laugh herself to death first.

"And there were already buildings here, too," Joshua pointed out. "The military left them. Then there are the caves in the hills. We even have hot water."

"You mean the hot springs," Alec said. "They stink."

"Sulfur," Joshua said. "It won't hurt you. Therapeutic."

"They stink," Alec repeated, wrinkling his nose at the memory of his one and only 'bath' in the naturally heated pools. His mind moved to another problem. "We need to get more of our people here, but Zeb thinks a trip a week is too much. He's right. We could be noticed. Although, at five grand a head, he and von Schmedler are makin' out like bandits."

"When will you bring Max?" Joshua asked.

The sun had vanished beneath the horizon and darkness was rapidly creeping down from the mountain behind them. Alec sighed deeply. He always felt so depressed at this hour ... lonely ... doubting ... that brief moment when day was dying and night hadn't quite come to life. He didn't know why. Maybe it was just his internal clock resetting to nocturnal mode. But dusk always made him feel jumpy ... shivery ... like he wasn't quite himself and nothing around him was real.

"Alec?"

"Huh?" Alec looked up at his friend. "Max?" His brows drew together. "She's safe with Sandeman. 'Sides, this island's no place for a baby."

"Maxine is here."

"She's almost a year old, and a second generation X5. We couldn't risk Lydecker takin' her. Sandeman even more or less told me to get her away, said she'd be important to the future too, him and his damn Prophecies."

"Max and your son should be with you."

"I know," Alec said quietly, still looking out over the darkening water, his genetically enhanced vision adjusting as rapidly as the light dimmed. "But not right now."

*****
"You're kidding me," Alec said, looking with dismay at the dead pig Mole had just carried into camp. The lizard man was obviously pumped about his kill, apparently in his element at last. Chomping on his ever-present cigar, he was beaming proudly, still holding onto the hand made spear he'd used to skewer what was apparently going to be their dinner.

"Hey," Mole said. "No gun fire, just like you said."

Alec shook his head. "This is what I've been reduced to," he said to no one in particular. "Killing my food with my bare hands. How ... 'Lord of the Flies.'" He looked around the compound as if hoping a Seven-Eleven might suddenly spring into existence. "At least tell me you don't expect me to gut the thing, or skin it, or whatever."

Joshua, grinning broadly, clapped him hard on the back. "Meat," he said. "Meat is good. Fresh. Healthy."

"You gonna cook it?" Alec asked, making a face at the smell of the fresh blood, although he had to admit his mouth was watering just a little bit, which in itself was alarming. Feline DNA he supposed.

"I'll cook it," Gem chimed in, coming out of the Quonset hut they'd chosen as their living quarters. The compound area boasted five of the old metal buildings, and this one, the largest, was the first to be renovated. Another hut just behind housed the generators and was also in the process of getting a new roof, a priority since the New Zealand winter and rainy season was fast approaching.

Gem was holding Maxine in her arms, the chubby baby X5 looking around with wide-eyed interest. Alec felt a pain in his chest at the sight. I wonder what Brac looks like? Shaking it off, he turned to Gem. "You didn't sign on to be chief cook and bottle washer. I'm sure someone else can manage." He gave a pointed look at Mole.

Mole was looking a bit sheepish. "Actually, I'm not sure how to, you know, fix the thing to eat."

Gem reached for the knife Mole had tucked into a sheath on his belt. "What are you guys? A bunch of sissy's? Didn't any of you pass wilderness training? I said I'd take care of it."

The three males looked at one another and collectively shrugged.

"Dinner's in three hours," Alec heard Gem say as he headed into the barracks.

*****
Peeling off his brown leather jacket, Alec dusted his hands off on his jeans and threw himself down on the bunk he'd claimed. All of the beds were in this end of the building, the computer and equipment in the other, and the make-shift kitchen in a room off the south side. There was no running water, yet, but new pipes were on order in Wellington and a spring on the hillside provided for now. He'd lived under worse conditions.

Lying on the bed with an arm flung over his his eyes, he listened to Dix puttering around in the other end of the big room. He wasn't sleepy, but he was bone tired, and Gem had said dinner wouldn't be for hours. Might as well rest while he could. But then he heard Dix approaching ...

"Far be it for me to criticize," the technically inclined mutant said, watching Alec through the monocle of his enhanced eye, "but don't you think your priorities are a little bit messed up?" Alec moved his arm so he could look up at the little guy. "What?"

Dix was holding a list in his hand. "The generators are online and we've got electric. The satellite communications system should be ready in a couple of days. Water and food not really a problem, just an inconvenience." He stopped reading and gave Alec a long look. "Liquor and junk food number four on the list? And DirecTV number five?"

Alec made a wry face. "I really miss MTV. This back to nature shit isn't what I was designed for." He saw Dix wasn't buying it. "Hey, I'm a man of the streets, a city boy, I need my little pleasures. All work and no play makes Alec a dull, not to mention very unhappy, boy."

The mutant rolled his eyes. "I'm surprised you don't have hookers on the agenda."

"Too much of a security risk," Alec shot back. "Although I've gotta admit now that you mention it ..." His voice was serious, but his eyes were laughing.

Dix held up one hand. "Don't even think about it. Besides, Max would ream your ass if you so much as looked at another female."

"Yeah, she would," Alec said, sighing. "If she was here."

"She'll be here soon enough," Dix said firmly. "But first you've got to get your priorities straight. You started this whole thing, Alec, and now you've got responsibilities. I know that's a dirty word to you, sort of cramps your style, but you're stuck with it. You're the leader here. So lead already."

Alec put his hands behind his head on the pillow. "All right, oh great wise one. I'm listening. What am I missin'?"

"Health care," Dix said. "And that's a big one. Back at New Manticore a lot of the mutants were starting to have problems, and I've seen you downing tryptophan every day. We need a doctor, or at least a science tech with some medical experience, the sooner the better. Too bad you didn't keep a copy of that DNA database you stole. That would be a big help too, even if we don't know how to really use the information yet. Someday we're going to be hurting not having access to it.

Alec looked innocently up at the rough beamed ceiling of the Quonset hut, a satisfied smirk on his lips.

"What?" Dix said. "What did you do? Don't tell me there's another copy of the DNA data."

"Nope," Alec said smugly. "That would have been too dangerous. It might have fallen into the wrong hands, meanin' the hands of someone who didn't pay for it."

"Then what?"

Alec took a deep breath. "I doubt we can access it now, but when we really get our computer system hot I left a back door code in Manticore's system."

"What do you mean a back door code?"

"Somethin' they taught me at Manticore, to use on my solo missions when I was supposed to gather data. It's a little program I memorized that hides in a bigger system until accessed from the outside. I inserted it at the same time I copied the info, the night I broke in and borrowed Logan for awhile. All you need is the URL and a code word and you should be able to go right into New Manticore's main hard drive."

"It bypasses the fire walls?"

"It should," Alec said. "Unless Lydecker's gotten enough money to hire some fancy computer expert who detected my program."

"Logan might have found it."

"Possibly," Alec said. "But since I never activated the thing I don't think he'd be looking. Besides, he wouldn't think I could do something like that."

"We still need a doctor."

"I know," Alec said. "And I'll re-arrange my priorities to reflect that. Now, what else is bothering you, besides the mosquitoes." Alec swatted one of the bloodsuckers off his arm.

"That group on the other side of the island."

Alec closed his eyes. "I know."

"You have to do something about them."

"Gee, I suppose we could go over there and kill 'em all," Alec said sarcastically. "That would really go a long way toward makin' sure no one notices us."

"They're going to notice us soon, Alec," Dix said. "You're the alpha. You need to make them leave."

"Forty to one, love the odds."

"We've got weapons, and there's more on the way. I saw the manifest you took with you to Wellington last week. Besides, you could always just ask them to leave nicely first."

"Oh yeah, I can hear it now," Alec said. "Excuse me Mr. Pirate but would you mind abandoning your home base because the island's been sold and is going to become a homeland for a bunch of mutants."

"They have to go."

"They haven't bothered us."

"You're avoiding the issue."

"If they cause trouble I'll deal with it."

"Then it might be too late. One of us could get hurt or killed by then."

Alec chewed on his lower lip. He knew Dix was right, but he so very much didn't want to have to slaughter a bunch of humans right now.

"Sandeman says we have to become an army," Dix prodded.

"Not that Prophecy shit again," Alec said, sitting up on the bunk and planting his feet firmly on the floor. "Please."

"So far it's all been true," Dix said quietly. "Just like the Greek and Roman mythologies. We're banding together, Sandeman's creations, and we're multiplying." He looked across the room where Gem, Maxine toddling by her side, was getting the kitchen ready for a pig roast. Then he turned his earnest gaze on Alec. "Even your name is right."

"My name?" Alec said, looking at Dix as if he'd gone crazy. "What does my name have to do with anything?"

"Do you know what 'Alec' means?"

Alec smiled at the memory, his mind going someplace else for a moment. "Yeah. It comes from 'smart alec' which is what Max called me the second time we met." He glanced at Dix and added dryly, "Her other choice for me was 'Dick.'"

"Well, actually," Dix said politely, "the original 'Smart Alec' was Alec Hoag, a 19th century New York City pimp who ran a scam called the 'panel game' that let him rob his prostitutes' johns while they slept after doing the deed -- which I admit is perhaps an apt name for you on one level."

"Gee thanks. Dix, did anyone ever tell you that you read way too much?"

"However," Dix continued, ignoring the interruption, "in the Greek language the name 'Alec,' derived from 'Alexander,' means helper and defender of mankind."

Alec looked sideways at the mutant. "You're kidding me."

"Look it up."

Alec sighed heavily, feeling like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, which in retrospect, it might really be. "I think I prefer havin' a pimp for my namesake." Another heavy sigh. "The Prophecies again, right?"

Dix clapped him on the shoulder. "You can't run from your destiny," he said gravely.

"No," Alec said, throwing himself back down on the bunk again and burying his face in his arms on the pillow. "But I sure as hell can try 'n hide for awhile."

He waited until his hearing told him Dix had joined Gem in the kitchen before reaching for the bottle of Scotch beneath the bed.

*****
"Genetically Empowered, Inc.?" Max said, her eyes widening with astonishment. Then she couldn't help it. She laughed. "Leave it to Alec to come up with a name like that."

"It's not funny," Logan said, running fingers through his thinning, grey-flecked hair as he sat in front of the computer terminal. "Lydecker suspected Alec was behind the New Manticore residents disappearing so he had his people start researching. I knew Alec had some money, but apparently he's gotten his hands on a lot more."

"And he set up his own company with it, and bought an island," Max said, not trying to disguise the admiration in her voice. "Pretty smart. Outrageous too, but still smart."

"Pretty dumb," Logan countered, his weathered features drawing into a scowl. "He should have stayed with you, or at least gone back to Lydecker where your kind can be properly looked after."

"My kind?" Max said, dark eyebrows arching.

"You know what I mean, Max," Logan said apologetically. "Your health problems, the uncertainty of your future, the way the government's going after you with all the new laws and regulations, the sterilization mandate which I have to admit might be for the best in the long run. New Manticore is a sanctuary for your people -- something Alec never appreciated."

"Oh yeah," Max said dryly. "I'm sure Alec really appreciated being tortured there, and seeing his friend Riley get lobotomized, not to mention the fact they now want to keep us from ever having children. He's just going to walk in there and hand himself over."

"Riley wasn't totally lobotomized," Logan said quietly. "He already had brain damage from an earlier re-indoctrination procedure and we just wanted to make him more content. They call it a transorbital lobotomy but it's really a very benign procedure, just takes the edge off of unwanted emotions."

Max glanced across the room to where Logan's "companion" was standing at attention by the door, a blank look in his eyes, his handsome features forever expressionless. She shuddered slightly. Lydecker could have done that to Alec all too easily, that time he had his hands on him ... just a little brain operation, a matter of minutes. She knew how they'd done it too. She'd read about the procedure out of curiosity. Performed without benefit of anesthetic, the patient was restrained, a needle inserted up behind the corner of one eye, and the frontal lobe of the brain pierced in several places. When the victim emerged from the operation there wasn't any personality left to speak of -- no worries, no emotions, no desires ...

God, how I miss Alec's laughter ... his playful voice ... his touch ...

"Max?" Logan said. "Are you all right?"

"Just wishing you didn't need Riley like you do," she said.

Logan tapped one foot on the floor. "Without him I wouldn't be able to keep walking."

"It's ghoulish, Logan. Taking his blood like that."

"It's medicinal, that's all. Hey, you gave me my first dose, remember?"

"Meaning I'm really the one that got you hooked?"

"Don't think of it that way, Max," Logan pleaded. "Think of it as giving a wonderful gift to a good friend."

"Yeah, I bet Riley thinks of it that way too," she said with another look at the statue-like X5.

"About Alec," Logan said, clearing his throat.

Max turned her attention back to the computer monitor.

"He bought this island ... here." Logan pointed to a small dot on the map on the screen. "It doesn't have a name, just a navigational number." His eyebrows rose. "Huh. Guess what the number is?"

"452?" Max guessed.

"998452," Logan said, shaking his head. "Makes you think there's something to all Sandeman's Prophecy stuff after all, doesn't it?"

"Not really," she said tiredly. "What information did you find about the island?"

"It's located approximately a hundred miles off the coast of New Zealand, twenty-five square miles in size, a dormant volcano in the middle, fresh water, forest, wildlife. It wasn't listed on the market as for sale. Wonder how your boy found out about it?"

"Alec's good about getting information when he has to," Max said. "He has a way of making people tell him things, and he's always got contacts."

"Well, even though the transaction came through the New Zealand government, technically the island's in international waters, which is real smart on Alec's part -- no country's going to be breathing down his neck. Of course he's an awfully long way from civilization for a city boy."

"Alec was trained to survive under any conditions," Max said levelly.

"But I bet he's not liking it," Logan said with a satisfied little smile. "In fact, I bet he's downright miserable."

"No wonder he hasn't called," Max said, looking more closely at the island's location. "Joshua either. There isn't a cell phone in the world that has enough range, unless he's got ahold of military communications equipment."

"He took Gem," Logan said, steering the conversation in another direction. "At least she and the baby are missing from New Manticore. So, he's got a female with him."

"Good," Max said, ignoring what Logan was implying. "He's protecting them. I bet Dalton's gone too."

"He is."

Max smiled at that. "Dalton worships Alec, like he's a big brother. Always has, ever since the Jam Pony siege."

"Alec's hardly a good example for a young boy."

"Dalton could do worse for a role model." Max countered. "Afterall, Alec's survived a lot."

"We all have, Max."

"Is Lydecker going to go after him?"

Logan shrugged. "How would I know? I haven't talked to the guy since I came back over here."

"Why are you here, Logan?" Max had to ask.

He looked at her then, in a way she wished he wouldn't. "Because I knew he'd left you here all alone and I figured you could use a friend."

You're not my friend anymore. Max started to say the words but didn't. Damn it, Alec. Why don't you come home?

*****
"You still miss Biggs sometimes, don't you?" Joshua said.

Alec looked over at his friend. They were lying on their stomachs on the ground, concealed behind a rock outcropping watching their neighbors on the beach below. He'd wanted to come alone tonight, to do a little reconnaissance on what exactly they were up against -- getting closer than he'd let Dalton -- but Joshua had insisted on coming along.

"Dead's dead," Alec responded, his voice flat. "You say it, then you keep on goin'. That is, if you wanna not be dead too."

"That's 494 talking," Joshua observed. "That's what Manticore taught you. But Alec misses Biggs."

"If I let myself, I'd miss a lot of people," Alec said, thinking back over the years of his life and all the death he'd seen ... inflicted -- death and worse. He smiled grimly. "But then what kind of soldier would I be if I let myself get all bothered by stuff like that?"

"A good one," Joshua said quietly. "One with a soul."

"No," Alec corrected him. "I'd be a dead soldier. Emotions get in the way of doin' the job. They cloud your thinking and make you weak. Emotions can get a man killed. And that, my friend, is why I never get involved."

Joshua was grinning at him.

"What?"

"Alec is outsmarting Alec again."

Alec's eyebrows drew together. He didn't understand.

Joshua tapped the side of his own head with a finger. "You deny your feelings when those very feelings are what makes you who you are. You denied your feelings for Max for over a year, and you almost lost her."

"She was in love with another man," Alec countered. "Kind of puts a damper on the whole wooing thing. I had to bide my time."

"Only because you never told her how you felt," Joshua countered. "Let her know she had a choice. And now you're denying your feelings again. You're lonely. You miss Max, and the baby too. You need them to be here with you."

"Sure, I miss Max," Alec said. "But she can't be here right now so there's no use beatin' myself up over it."

"She'd come if you went and got her."

"She needs to be in Corsica right now. Your father says so."

"Father says Max needs to be with him forever."

"That's not gonna happen," Alec said, his green eyes narrowing. He rose up a bit and looked down on the beach. It was late afternoon and the shadows were lengthening. There were a couple of guards on the sand, but he knew that soon the rest of the "tribe" would emerge from the caves and begin the nightly party Dalton had described. The pirates stayed hidden during the day for fear of being spotted by passing military or coast guard, but darkness was a whole different story.

A sound behind them made Alec turn quickly, the new Glock 45 he'd purchased on the mainland instantly in his hand. But Joshua's fingers on his arm stayed his instinctive reaction.

"It's all right," the dogman said in a low voice, sniffing the air, his sensitive nose telling him it was friend, not foe.

Dalton, keeping low to the ground, came out of the bushes.

"I told you to stay at the camp," Alec said, doing his best to sound stern.

"Yes, sir. I know, sir," the boy said. "But Gem was gonna make me pluck chickens again."

Joshua and Alec looked at each other, sympathizing. But Alec knew he couldn't just let it slide. "Weren't you taught to follow orders, soldier?"

"Yes, sir," Dalton said, hanging his head. He looked up. "You can hit me if you want to now, sir."

"No," Alec said, remembering himself at that age and the beatings he and his unit mates had gotten from Manticore guards. "We don't hurt each other. Not ever." He thought a minute. "But when we get back you're doin' kitchen duty for a week."

"Ah, Alec ..."

"No complaints, soldier."

"No, sir."

"Now, since you're here, what time do these guys come out to play?"

Dalton brushed his bushy blonde hair out of his eyes and squinted up at the angle of the sun. "Give 'em fifteen minutes," he said.

Actually, it was more like 20 minutes, but eventually the first of the pirates emerged from the cave, a line of maybe a dozen men and half a dozen women. They proceeded to build a bonfire on the beach, and were soon joined by at least 30 others, some bringing food to cook on the flames, others carrying bottles of liquor. The women didn't look very happy, Alec noticed. Maybe they were captives. His suspicions seemed to be confirmed when one of the girls, caught in the arms of a large dark skinned pirate, broke away with a scream and began running down the beach only to be caught and dragged by her hair back to the fire.

Alec glanced at Dalton. He'd had the kid watching this gang almost every day for the past week. Usually he was back at the compound by now. But just what had he seen?

A low growl rumbled in Joshua's throat as a second woman was dragged off to one side by two men. She was crying, begging them to leave her alone. But her pleas were met with nothing more than coarse laughter.

"Those girls were brought in two days ago," Dalton said. "They came on the small boat. I think they're prisoners." He looked at Alec. "I've seen others. But then they disappear."

Alec swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth. He'd thought these were just pirates, maybe drug runners at the worst. But this was white slavery. As he watched, a third girl was thrown on the ground and the top of her dress ripped open by a guy who looked like something that should never have been allowed in the gene pool of mankind. She was screaming too.

Unable to help himself, Alec thought of Max ... of what White's people had done to her, and cringed. He'd seen enough. "Stay here," he commanded the other two, his voice low and dangerous. He started forward.

Joshua grabbed his arm. "No," his big friend said. "Not now. Not alone. Think, Alec. You said we were outnumbered and you're right. We have to have a plan. We have to have more of us."

Alec gestured toward the beach where one of the girls had now been stripped naked and was being assaulted by two of the pirates. "We don't have time for a plan. They need help now."

Dalton, eyes wide, was watching the whole thing, and with a pang of guilt Alec realized he should never have assigned the young X7 to this mission. Who knew what the kid had been seeing all week? But it was too late now.

"You can't do this alone," Joshua said again, emphasizing the words with his eyes.

"I'm an X5," Alec snapped. "I'm so much better than those scum it isn't even funny."

"Not. Alone. Think, Alec. You're the leader. You have to use your brain, no matter what your heart says."

"Usually you tell me it's the other way around," Alec couldn't help pointing out. He looked down at the beach again where all six women were now being brutally raped. Jaw clenched and murder in his eyes, he still knew that Joshua was right. Taking that gang on alone would be suicide, even for an X5 ... maybe even for all of them.

He looked over at Dalton. "Their leader is the big guy, the bearded one in the black duster with the earring? The one who looks like an X-rated Disney cartoon?"

Dalton nodded.

Alec turned and focused on his target, his vision zooming in for a closer look. Six foot six, maybe 250 pounds, two guns, a knife at his belt, probably another in his boot -- he didn't look like much to take on. "Ordinary." Alec made it a swear word.

He looked back at Dalton again. "What's the first thing you do when you're outnumbered in a combat situation, soldier, but still need to defeat the enemy?"

Dalton thought a minute, then his eyes lit up. "Take out the leaders," he said.

"Exactly," Alec said, catching his lower lip in his teeth as he continued studying the big pirate down below. If only he had a sniper's rifle ...

But he was going to have to do this job from close up, so the others would see what happened and be afraid. Yeah, he wanted to make them afraid ... very, very afraid ...

*****
"This is ridiculous," Alec said to himself as he worked his way down the hillside to the beach. "I'm gonna get killed."

He hopped down off the last of the rocks and walked through the sand toward the pirate's campfire. One of the men on the perimeter spotted him first and poked his companion with his fist. This quickly led to a dozen heads turning in his direction.

Alec put on his most charming smile and waved. "Hello the camp there!" he shouted. "Just wanted to pay a visit to my neighbors!"

Now more than two dozen rugged, murderous looking men were staring at him. Even though Alec knew Joshua, Mole, and the others had him covered from the hillside, he still felt the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. A normal human would never get out of this situation alive, he realized. Whether a transgenic could or not remained to be seen.

One of the biggest of the pirates, a real brute of a guy who had to weigh at least three hundred pounds and had more body hair than a gorilla, stepped forward. Alec definitely didn't like the look in the those eyes. He'd been sized up like that before, and it never ended well.

"Well look at this," Gorilla said, grinning. "And here we thought we'd had all of the bitches already."

Alec stopped a few feet away from the man, putting on a pouty frown. "Now that truly hurts," he said. "I just came down to have a little man to man talk with your boss and here you go insulting me already."

"And who might you be?" the big guy Dalton had pointed out said as he pushed his way through the crowd. As the men parted, Alec got a glimpse of one of the girls lying either unconscious or dead on the ground near the fire. No. This was not a good situation.

"Your neighbor," Alec said, jerking his thumb toward the mountain towering above. "On the other beach just west of here, the one about five miles around."

"Neighbor? What the hell are you talkin' about?"

"Actually," Alec said, still smiling, "I'm your landlord. Ya see, I bought the island."

"So," the head honcho said, "you're a rich bitch."

"You need to quit callin' me that."

"What? Bitch? But you're such a pretty young thing. You say you bought this island? Bet you used Daddy's money. Is your yacht moored in the other cove? At any rate, like I said, looks like the boys aren't done havin' fun tonight."

"I don't know if I'd call what's gonna happen fun," Alec said mildly." He thought about that a second. "Well, it might be fun for me, but it's not gonna be fun for you."

Show time. Alec stepped forward further into the firelight so everyone could see him clearly. Then he squared his shoulders and raised his head, his demeanor visibly changing from easy going to professional killer in an instant, a fuck 'em all look glittering in his deadly green eyes. Only his voice remained the same -- light, playful, and ever-so-slightly taunting.

"Girls," he said. "It's like this. "The whole shit head bunch of you will have one chance to leave this island tomorrow morning. If you don't, me and mine will be payin' you a little visit, and when we're through there won't be anything left except bodies."

"You're threatenin' to kill us?" the leader said, incredulous. "You and what army?"

"Funny you should ask that," Alec said, giving a hand signal. Mole and Joshua glided out of the shadows to stand behind him, their transhuman visages looking positively demonic in the light from the dancing flames. The collective gasp from the pirates was gratifying.

"What the hell are you people?" the first big guy sputtered.

"Oh, we're not people at all," Alec said with another easy smile. "My friends here are what they call transhumans. And me ... I'm not human either, as you'll find out if you don't get out of here by tomorrow morning."

"It's a trick," the guy declared, coming forward to stand toe-to-toe with Alec who had to look up slightly to see his face. "They're wearin' Halloween masks and this little poser is playin' with our heads. Well, he's gonna be my bitch before the night's over." He reached out and grabbed Alec's shoulder.

Which was a very fatal mistake.

All it takes is a trigger for them to kill.

Alec's hand blurred, snatching the pirate by the throat, lifting him off his feet, and snapping his neck one-handed as easily as if the man had been a chicken, the sharp crack audible even above the crackling sound of the fire. Behind him Mole and Joshua raised their rifles, even as guns appeared in the hands of everyone on the other side.

The boss stared, his face contorted with rage, about to order his men to open fire -- but then he saw the inhuman look in Alec's eyes. "What the hell are you?" he grated out.

Alec fell back on the tried and true. "Better," he said, his lips curling over his teeth in a wicked smile.

And then suddenly understanding dawned. "You're some of those mutants," the boss said. "The ones over in the States that have been on the telly. They say you're gonna muck up the human race if you're allowed to live!" He looked up at Mole and Joshua and swallowed hard. No, they weren't Halloween masks.

"We preferred genetically empowered," Alec said, just to set the record straight. "Now, about you vacating my island ..."

"Like hell!" the pirate spat.

And so it began.

Even as Alec drew his gun, Dalton, Dix, Luke, and Gem were opening fire from the mountainside above while Joshua and Mole took cover in the rocks, firing as they retreated.

Unfortunately, Alec found himself blocked off, unable to reach cover. Hand-to-hand was no problem with the ordinaries surrounding him, but the barrage of bullets was. He hit the dirt, covering his head, while lead bit into the sand all around.

"Alec!" He looked up to see Joshua gesturing for him to make a run for it while they lay down covering fire. Scrambling to his feet, his took out one last pirate with a spin kick and blurred for the rocks.

Too late, he saw the leader of the mercenaries jump out from behind a pile of logs. The first blow of the crowbar smashed down on his hand, knocking his gun out of his fingers. Raising his arm, Alec tried to block the second swing but only partially succeeded. Cutting a deep gouge in his arm, the end of the iron bar glanced off and struck him in the side of the head.

The world exploded in a shower of white hot sparks -- and the battle was over for Alec.

*****
"Maybe we should try to reach Max," a woman's voice said.

"Or a doctor," a man's voice replied. "He's been out for too long. This could be more than just a concussion. He might have a fractured skull."

"But we can't take him to a hospital," a third voice chimed in. "They'd find out what he was and do God knows what to him."

What he was?

He knew what he was. Or rather he knew who he was. His designation was X5-494 and he was a soldier with Manticore.

He couldn't quite manage to open his eyes. "What happened to me?" he got out groggily, his speech slurred.

"He's awake," the woman said, relief evident in her voice. "Thank God. Alec. Alec, talk to me. There was a big fight on the beach with the mercenaries. You were hit in the head and you've been unconscious for two days. Joshua carried you back here. You've had us really worried, but now you're going to be all right."

"Joshua?" he muttered. He swallowed, difficult to do because his throat was so dry. Who the hell is Joshua?

He opened his eyes at last -- to see a gigantic dog face hovering only inches away.

"Ahhhh!" he yelled, coming completely awake in an instant and scrambling backwards on the bunk. He misjudged the edge and fell on the floor, but was on his feet in an instant in a fighting stance. Backing up to the wall, he stood there breathing heavily, ready to defend himself. "Who are you--" He eyed the dogman warily. "-- people?"

"Alec," the woman said gently, making a soothing motion with her hands. "You know who we are. We're your friends. Just ... calm down."

"What's wrong with him?"

494 jerked his head to stare at a little grey-skinned creature wearing some kind of monocle. Another being similar to that one was hovering just behind him.

"What's going on in here?" someone else asked from the doorway.

The sight of what seemed to be a half lizard-half man beast was the last straw.

"You're not real!" 494 shouted, his voice hoarse as he slid along the wall. "None of this is real! You're just imaginary ... the nomalies ... you don't exist!

Except they did exist. He'd seen things like this before ... in the basement of Manticore when he'd been punished. Before that he'd thought they were only childhood horror stories, figments of the imagination. But some of the nomalies were real ... like these.

"Where am I?" he shouted, still ready to fight or flee.

"New Zealand," the dog creature said, sounding completely matter-of-fact, as if that answer was obvious.

"Shut up! I was asking her!" He nodded at the female who at least appeared to be an X series. "What's your designation?"

"X5-469," she said quietly, holding her hands out to him again, showing him she was unarmed. "X5-494 you've been injured. You're not thinking straight. You need to calm down and we'll explain everything to you."

"No," he said, shaking his head. He looked toward the door. "I need to get back to my unit."

"We're your unit," the woman said, her voice growing more stern. "Soldier, you need to stand down."

"No," 494 said, still shaking his head. "You're not my unit. I've never seen you before. You're ..." He looked around the building. "You're rogues. I think I was sent to bring you back."

"At least his imagination is still intact," the lizard man said wryly as he chomped on a cigar."But somebody better drop a net over him or we're gonna end up chasin' him all over the island."

The dogman stepped forward, and 494 cringed.

"Alec," the creature said.

"Why do you keep calling me that?"

"Because that's your name."

"I'm X5-494."

"No, you're Alec. You used to be X5-494, but that was before we were set free from Manticore."

"He doesn't remember that," the woman said. "It's the blow to the head. Amnesia of some kind."

"Great," the lizard-man said, still chomping the cigar.

"Did I sell you that cigar?" 494 asked, giving his head a little shake at the fragment of memory tickling his mind. "I used to sell cigars."

"I had a supplier back at the old Manticore base," the lizard-man said. "You might have been the go-between ... what does this have to do with anything? Alec ... or X5-494 ... or whatever you wanna call yourself ... you need to go lie down until you come back from Wonderland."

"Got that right," the little grey guy agreed.

The door was standing partway open. 494 could see the night sky outside ... hear the ocean. "I've got to get back to my unit," he said, shaking his head again in confusion. "Just ... leave me alone." And then he moved -- very, very fast.

Too late-- "He's gonna run!" Mole shouted, making a leap forward as their misguided transgenic friend blurred for the door.

"Shit!" Gem yelled.

"Alec!" Joshua wailed.

But 494 was already pounding down the path to the beach, ignoring the pain in his bare feet as he skidded over shards of rock and coarse sand. With his acute night vision he could see there was a boat in the cove. He looked up at the dark sky, spotted the north star. They'd said they were in New Zealand, probably a a coastal town or an island. He visualized a map in his mind, pictured the locations of the mainland cities, the distances.

Jumping onto the boat, he started the engine even as he heard the others coming down the path. Maybe there would be charts ...

By the time his pursuers reached the beach he was already a quarter mile out in the water, and soon he couldn't hear their shouts anymore over the sound of the engine and the waves.

*****
There were very few things in the universe that could surprise Madam Renfro, let alone astonish her. But the sight of the young transgenic male standing in front of her now left her with her mouth hanging open and no words to say. He'd come into the New Manticore base a few minutes ago, appearing at the gate and claiming to be returning from a mission. The guards, not knowing what else to do, had escorted him to her office.

"X5-494 reporting for duty, mam," he said, standing at crisp attention.

Dirty and disheveled, his t-shirt and jeans filthy, not to mention badly in need of a haircut and shave, Renfro had to actually reach up and yank his head around to check his bar code before believing her widened eyes. She also noted the ugly wound on his temple, a scabbed over gash that was healing but obviously still fairly fresh, and another lesser cut on his left forearm.

"Report, 494," she said cautiously as she released her hold on his hair, wondering if this wasn't some kind of trick.

His brows drew together, and a distressed look clouded gold-flecked green eyes. "Unable to comply, mam."

"Explain."

"I appear to have been injured, mam, and can't remember what happened. Apparently I was on a mission and became separated from my unit. I suspect I was sent to retrieve rogue Manticore personnel."

"You're correct," Renfro said quickly. "You were on an assignment for me and engaged in battle with the rogues. It appears you sustained a head wound soldier. You're lucky you were able to make your way back here from--" She looked at him expectantly.

"An island off the coast of New Zealand, mam," 494 said, squaring his shoulders even more although he was beginning to shake, the fatigue of the journey catching up to him.

"How did you get back here?" she asked, still astonished that the ever-cocky, arrogant, fuck-the-world 494 was being so docile.

"I escaped from the rogues' camp and made my way to the mainland," he said. "I stole money and I.D., and bought a plane ticket." His brow wrinkled again. "Mam, what happened to the original Manticore base? I went back there but it had burned down. I heard about this new base on the news."

"The rogues did that, soldier," Renfro said. "The ones you were sent after. They destroyed your home and killed a great many of your brothers and sisters."

Renfro absolutely loved the way her words made his jaw tighten, and the anger in those green eyes was a joy to behold. This situation definitely had possibilities. The idea of winding X5-494 up and sending him on a mission to kill those who had been his closest friends and allies sent a chill of pleasure up her spine. Of course Sandeman could never know ... But those mutants weren't all that important in the grand scheme of things were they? And then there would be the beautiful moment when X5-452 would find out her lover had reverted to his original programming, that her precious 'Smart Alec' was gone forever.

But first, she had another more intimate service for X5-494 to perform. "Go get yourself cleaned up, soldier," she said, her voice lowering seductively. "Shower, shave, get a fresh set of clothes."

"Yes, mam."

No questions. No arrogance. No sly look in those breathtakingly beautiful eyes, only obedience and a slight touch of confusion. He just stood there compliantly, his tall muscular body at her service. Delicious.

Renfro smiled wolfishly. "I'll have quarters assigned to you," she said. "After you're clean, go there and rest. You'll be given food. My guards will come for you at 0800. I have a personal assignment for you tonight."

"Yes, mam."

"Dismissed."

He saluted, turned sharply on his heel, and left her office.

Renfro leaned back in her chair and steepled her hands, a hungry smile on her face. "At last 494," she said softly. "Your gorgeous ass is mine."

*****
"What do you mean he's not fit for duty?" Renfro said. "It seems to me that little head wound of his has accomplished what all of your re-indoctrination procedures and torture couldn't. X5-494 is back on the team and taking orders like the good little soldier he was created to be."

Lydecker shook his head and sighed heavily, totally exasperated. "He has a head wound," he said slowly, enunciating each word clearly. "He's injured. I had the medics do a CAT scan. There's a small hemorrhage in his skull putting pressure on his brain. That's why he's apparently lost his memory of the past couple of years."

"So?" Renfro said, her eyebrows arching. "I don't care how it happened, just that 494's back in the fold."

"He's not back!" Lydecker snapped. "He's damaged! He needs medical attention, not assignments. He could take a turn for the worse ... die even." He thought a moment and a little smile appeared on his weathered face. "Or he could regain his memory -- a bit at a time, maybe even suddenly. The doctors say this kind of injury is tricky ... unpredictable ... just like 494 ... like Alec."

"All the more reason to make use of him while I can then," Renfro snapped.

Lydecker shook his head in disbelief. "You're going to order him into your bed, aren't you? Order him to have sex with you."

Renfro didn't deny it.

"You've always had a thing for that kid, haven't you?" Lydecker continued, his tone of voice expressing his disgust. "You could never accept that Alec fell in love with Max, the breeding partner you'd assigned him. You thought because he was an X5 soldier he'd be able to dispassionately fuck with whomever you ordered him to, including yourself!"

"He should be able to," Renfro said. "Other X5 males managed the task, with me as well as their assigned partners."

"A few of them," Lydecker conceded, his repugnance at her use of his male soldiers evident. "But your attempt to institute an X5 breeding program was a dismal failure. We have what? One live birth from the unions that we know of? Oh, and I'll credit you 452's child as well," he added sarcastically, "seeing as how you did initially pair off the parents. I mean, if Alec had never been assigned to Max who knows where we'd be right now."

"Stop calling him 'Alec'," Renfro said coldly. "He's only 494 now."

"He's still Alec!" Lydecker shouted, bringing a fist down on top of her desk. "He'll always be Alec. I know because I tried to take that away from him not just once, but twice before, and it's impossible. Oh, he might have forgotten his name for now, and who his friends are, but Alec's an integral part of 494's personality. Alec is who he's always really been, and who he always will be!"

"He's a Manticore soldier and he belongs to me!" Renfro shouted right back at him.

"He doesn't belong to anybody anymore! He's free, and a leader of his people!"

"Since when did you take up the mutants' precious cause?" Renfro said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "I seem to recall you wanting nothing so much as to contain Sandeman's creations, control them, keep them imprisoned within the walls of your New Manticore."

"Sandeman needs an army," Lydecker said, his voice more quiet now. "I thought I could give him that. But I failed. Alec, however, is succeeding. His idea of a nation for his people, a place where they can congregate safely, live self sufficiently, have families ... That's what Sandeman's vision is really all about. Not this ..." He gestured at the walls around them. "Not a military base where they're incarcerated in fear for their lives, and ordered around until the government comes in and sterilizes them. Sandeman needs a nation of Chimeras to defeat the Familiars ... needs that as much as he needs Max's blood for the cure. Well, Max is providing the cure, but Alec's providing the army, and I can't let you interfere with that."

"I'm not going to kill the boy," Renfro said sweetly. "Just make use of him for awhile. Afterwards, when I'm done, I'll even give him back to 452 -- that is if she still wants him."

"Leave him alone," Lydecker warned. "Let him rest. Let him heal. And let him go back to his job ... to Max and his son."

"I think you're forgetting who the superior officer is on this base right now," Renfro said coldly. "You're dismissed."

Lydecker stood firm.

"I'll have you removed." She reached for the buzzer on her desk.

"This isn't over," he said, conceding for the moment. "You're not getting your hands on that boy."

*****
"X5-494!"

"Sir!" Jumping up from the bunk in his New Manticore basement cell, X5-494 blinked sleepy eyes and focused on his commanding officer.

"State your physical status," Lydecker said.

"I have a headache, sir, but I'm functional. Sir, can I ask a question, sir?"

"State your question."

"My CO was always Mr. Sandoval, sir. Are you now taking over as my handler?"

"Agent Sandoval is dead," Lydecker said, shaking his head in amazement at just how far back Alec had regressed in his mind. "Many things have changed since you were last on the base. You're under my direct command now."

"Yes--" There was a hesitation in those green eyes. Lydecker saw it flicker briefly before extinguishing. "--sir."

The doctors had told him in a case like this memory could return at any moment, often only needing a slight trigger that would open a floodgate. Lydecker decided to try something.

"X5-494, what can you tell me about a soldier designated X5-452?"

A moment of blankness in those eyes while he accessed information. "X5-452 was one of the '09 escapees, sir. She's a traitor to Manticore who has never been apprehended."

"Now," Lydecker said more softly. "What can you tell me about Max?"

Again the blankness, followed by a puzzled frown.

"Think, soldier. It's important for you to remember."

"Was she a target, sir?"

He recognized Max as a female, Lydecker realized -- a good sign. "She was your breeding partner, soldier. 'Max' is what X5-452 called herself. I'm surprised you would forget something like that."

494 eyes him sideways, a look of disbelief on his face.

"She's your mate," Lydecker said gently. "And the mother of your son."

"I appear to have forgotten quite a bit, sir," 494 said with just a touch of his old sarcasm. "If what you're telling me is true."

"Oh, it's true all right. Now, I need you to listen to me. You've lost over a year of your memory, of your life, due to that head injury. And if you don't start recovering those memories pretty quickly, you're going to be forced to do things you might never be able to forgive yourself for when you get back to your real self."

"Sir," 494 said cautiously. "I think you'd better discuss this with Major Renfro."

Lydecker laughed, a short sharp sound without any humor. "That's the last thing I should be doing, soldier. Major Renfro wants to hurt you, son. And in your condition I'm afraid you're going to let her."

"I'll follow orders, no matter what they are," 494 said. He swallowed hard. "I learned my lesson, sir. I don't want to be punished again."

Alec ... 494 ... remembered that, Lydecker realized. Remembered the consequences for failing the Berrisford assignment, his first deep cover mission. He smiled sadly. "Believe me, son, the kind of punishment you underwent before is nothing compared to the physical and psychological damage Major Renfro wants to inflict on you now. I'd tell you to run, leave this base to get away from her, but in your impaired condition you could end up doing serious harm on the outside, and eventually getting yourself killed."

"Where would I go, sir?"

"Exactly my point. No. Your home is with us ... with your people, and with Max." Lydecker looked at his watch. Time was getting short. Renfro would be sending for her toy of the evening soon.

"Sir, are you telling me to disobey Major Renfro's orders?"

"I'm telling you to not blindly do something that you'll hate yourself for afterwards."

"But if it's an order--"

"Yes, you might be punished. But believe me, that punishment would be preferable to carrying out what she wants you to do."

"Sir, if I may ask, does she want me to kill someone? In spite of my past failure, I'm still trained for solo missions and capable of higher level assignments."

Lydecker shook his head, realizing that for all his brilliantly high I.Q. this mentally regressed version of Alec naively didn't have a clue. "No, soldier. She won't be ordering you to assassinate anyone. At least I don't think so. She'll be--" He swallowed hard, unwilling to put Renfro's intentions into words. "Never mind. We just have to make certain things don't go that far."

He looked at his watch again. And then he heard men approaching.

"We've been sent to escort X5-494 to Major Renfro's quarters," a soldier, one of Sandeman's Familiars, said.

The look 494 gave him made Lydecker's heart hurt. The kid was really scared now, and didn't know who to believe. This was ridiculous. They needed Alec and his damnable cocky attitude back and they needed him now. Alec would be fighting this, both verbally and physically, not stepping meekly out of his cell like a sheep to slaughter.

"Alec!" Lydecker called sharply.

494 jumped and looked at him, his eyes brightening for a split second then clouding with confusion again.

"Fight her!" Lydecker commanded. "Remember Max!"

Then, with a last desperate look in his commander's direction, 494 let himself be led away.

*****
Max. Max. Max.

The name tumbled around in his head as 494 walked behind the soldiers through the corridors of New Manticore.

Hold me. Don't ever let me go. I love you.

There had been kissing ... hot naked bodies entwined ... his every sexual need satisfied ... all his fears soothed away ...

Rachel?

Rachel was dead. He'd killed her. And Manticore had nearly destroyed him for daring to love. But he had loved ... still loved ...

Breeding partner? He'd had a breeding partner? Max? X5-452? But she was a rogue, a traitor. How could he have been with her? And they had a son?

I need to remember. There's something really big here I'm missing.

The door to Renfro's quarters was in front of him. One of the escorting soldiers knocked. "We've brought him, mam. As ordered."

"Good," Madam Renfro purred as she opened the door. "Come in, 494."

"Yes, mam," 494 whispered.

The door shut behind him. He was standing in the major's quarters. There was a bed in the middle of the room -- a very big bed with red satin sheets. And was that a whip lying on the pillow? He focused his eyes on that rather than on Renfro in her see-through, black silk teddy -- which is when he noticed there were handcuffs on the night stand along with assorted other ... toys, some of them really scary looking. 494 gulped.

You're going to do things you might never be able to forgive yourself for.

"Mam," he said. "I don't want to do this."

"You'll follow orders, soldier," she snapped. "Or you know what will happen."

Fight her! Remember Max!

Long, soft dark hair, laughing brown eyes, luscious full lips, her small tight body beneath his ...

She's your mate ... and the mother of your son.

Why couldn't he remember? Why were there just flashes?

"Take off your clothes, soldier," Renfro ordered, the voracious sexual desire in her voice and eyes frightening .

He didn't move.

"Take them off or I'll have my men strip you. They'll hold you down while I have you as well, if that's necessary. In fact, I rather relish an audience. The more the merrier."

He remembered the feel of cold, cruel fingers touching him shamefully while he was shackled naked and helpless on a metal table. And he remembered the incredible warmth and satisfaction of another woman in his arms ... the woman he loved. Max.

"No, mam," he said, his voice dropping an octave.

"I'll have her killed," Renfro whispered. "In spite of Sandeman, I'll have her killed if you defy me. Your body was designed to be used by my kind, and damn it I'm going to use you."

He heard the door open quietly behind him ... sensed someone ... the scent wonderfully familiar. An emotional presence brushed his mind--

"Alec."

The word ... his name ... spoken gently by the woman who'd bestowed it on him. And all of a sudden 'Alec' really was his name.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Renfro growled at the intruder. "Does Sandeman know you're--" But then she saw the look in his eyes.

"You're back," Renfro said, a hint of fear in her voice. She wasn't talking to the newcomer.

"Damn right I'm back," Alec said, his voice now seriously dangerous. He felt as if the door that had just opened behind him had also opened a door in his mind. But it was her voice that had been the trigger -- Max's voice.

"Alec," Max said again, stepping up beside him and taking hold of his hand. "Come on. We're getting you out of here. You're hurt."

Alec held up his other hand. "Wait," he said. "We're not through here."

"Guards!" Renfro shouted.

Max whirled and bolted the door.

The major dove for the bed, rolled, and came up with a gun in her hand that had been beneath the pillow. She aimed at Max.

"You won't hurt me," Max said. "I'm your precious cure."

"I don't care," Renfro spat. "I just want him to comply." She looked at Alec, raking him with her eyes. "Send her away and submit or I pull the trigger."

"No," Alec said simply, calling her bluff.

"Then you leave me no choice," Renfro said. "If I can't have you, then she never will again either."

"No!" Max screamed. But too late she realized what Renfro was going to do, that it wasn't her she was aiming at any more.

But Alec knew. Shoving Max safely out of the way he blurred even as he heard the gunshot. There was a sharp pain in his side, but it didn't even slow him down.

In the space of a heartbeat his steel-hard fingers were around Renfro's wrist, snapping the bone as he twisted the gun away and threw it across the room. And then the major was looking directly into a pair of brilliant hazel-green eyes that glowed with a light more primitive than anything human. The rest was mere training ... instinct ... His hand went to the back of her neck, his forearm across her throat and she was pinned against the headboard of that obscenely large bed.

"Alec!" Max screamed. "Don't!"

Too late.

I spent my formative years learning the fine art of assassination.

Pressure in just the right place. A wrench. A break. And Renfro slumped limp and lifeless even as her wicked eyes still stared up at her executioner.

*****
It had been so long, but then, in a way, the waiting, the separation, just made their reunion all the more sweet.

"Do you forgive me now?" he whispered in her ear, his voice husky and low, his breath tickling as his lips wandered down the side of her neck.

Max smiled possessively and snuggled closer in his arms, her naked body molding to his. They'd already made love all night long ... not to mention most of the day before ... and in the back of the cargo plane on the journey here, on a pile of parachute silk no less. Concussion and bullet graze aside, Alec hadn't been able to wait, and neither could she.

Of course there had been the small problem of Brac who had accompanied his mommy to the U.S. Luckily, OC had been more than glad to watch the baby while Mommy and Daddy got intimately reacquainted amidst the parachutes.

It had been Alec's idea to invite OC to go with them to New Zealand, saying they needed a nanny.

Originally he'd been joking. They'd stopped in to see the old gang at Jam Pony on their way to Vancouver. Max still felt like laughing at the astonished look on Alec's face when Original Cindy had so saucily accepted his offer. "I'd rather be with my family anytime, Boo" she'd said, holding Brac adoringly in her arms while Sketchy and others gathered around. "No more bip-bip for this fine cherie. New Zealand, here I come!" And just like that OC had walked up to an utterly astonished Normal and resigned as a member of Team Jam Pony.

As for Normal -- he'd understood, and Max would always remember his words to Alec. "It's been an honor and a privilege to know you, young man," he'd said as he shook Alec's hand. "And, no matter what happens, you take care of your family. Also know you've always got a place here at Jam Pony if you ever need a job in Seattle again." And then Normal had looked at her, silently including her in the invitation.

Alec had thanked him graciously, and then they'd left without looking back -- leaving that part of their lives behind forever.

Max sighed happily and stretched like a cat. Now that she wasn't pregnant and her body completely healed it was just like in the beginning. Alec was so powerful ... so forceful in his lovemaking ... aggressive enough to satisfy her own wild passionate desires, but also ever-so-thoughtful of her needs.

He wanted to please her very, very badly.

Max ran her fingers down the long muscles of his back then cupped his hard tight buttocks with her hands. Alec might have his psychological flaws ... hell, he had a lot of them ... but he was a fantastic lover, and from now on she was determined to show him how much she appreciated him in her life. No more petty arguments. No more sniping away at his decisions, his choices ... Unless of course he did something stupid again, and then she'd have kick this oh so very fine ass.

She looked up at him above her in the dark. "Why didn't you come back to us?"

He wriggled a little and she heard him sigh. "Because I wanted to have everything here perfect for you so you'd know I wasn't messing up again."

Her hand went to his face, lifting long strands of hair off his forehead. "You never cut your hair."

"You told me not to."

"I told you a lot of things."

"Well, you were right about my hair. I need to keep the bar code covered."

She looked up at the ceiling. They could see the stars overhead through a big hole in the roof. Alec had dragged a mattress into this Quonset hut yesterday so they'd have some privacy with promises of fixing the place up first thing tomorrow.

"Do you like it here?" he asked.

She heard the worry in his voice, the hope ...

"I like it with you," she said truthfully. "But I'm a city girl and it's going to take me awhile to get used to all this wilderness camp crap."

"Me too," Alec said wryly. "And OC's gonna go nuts."

"At least we're going to have plenty of company soon," Max said. "Now that Lydecker has agreed to help move the rest of our people here. No more sneaky midnight plane trips costing a fortune a head."

"Lydecker switches sides so often it's a wonder his head stays on straight," Alec said dryly.

"You owe him," Max said. "He's the one who called me, told me to get back to New Manticore. It's the only reason I was there in time to keep you from-- You know."

"To keep me from bein' raped by Renfro," Alec said quietly. He closed his eyes at the bad memory. "It was just like bein' eighteen years old again. I felt like I had to follow her orders no matter what or else they'd hurt me."

"You remember everything that happened?"

"Yeah," Alec said.

"Would you have let her do that to you?" Max had to ask. "If I hadn't shown up?"

"I don't know," Alec said honestly. "Does it count that I was concussed at the time? Like I said, I was scared. Hell, Max, it took me years to get over what they did to me after Rachel. And suddenly I was right back there in the middle of that nightmare, feelin' like it had happened just yesterday. You have no idea how that messes a man up, the torture, and the threat of more."

"Yes, I do," Max said honestly, remembering her own times with Renfro at Manticore and how she'd eventually given in and responded to her designation rather than her name to avoid the pain.

She reached up and caressed the half healed wound on his temple, once again brushing his hair out of the way. "Is there going to be any more trouble with the mercenaries?"

"Mole says they're all dead," Alec replied, turning over onto his back and putting his arms behind his head.

She followed him, resting her head on his warm, hard chest, taking comfort in the sound of his heartbeat. "You didn't kill them," she said.

"I killed some of 'em. And I would've killed more if I hadn't been taken out of the fight. I still wonder if there wasn't another way -- if all of them had to die. Of course Joshua saw that the women got back to the mainland. You can bet the rumors are gonna be goin' around Wellington now about the mutant island."

He smiled in the dark, a happy thought intruding. "Hey Max, do you think I could buy a helicopter? A helicopter would make a lot more sense here than just havin' boats. It would be so much quicker, but I'm not sure about the upkeep. I can fly one you know ... at least I think I can ..."

Max smiled, used to Alec's segues into non sequiturs as well as his tendency to babble. "Boys and their toys," she said. "You can buy anything you want with all those millions you have left. Although Logan says you should invest it and live off the interest."

She hadn't meant to break the spell, but Logan's name, as always, did the trick for Alec.

"Logan's still with Sandeman?" he said, his voice losing all the playfulness of a moment before.

"He was when I left," Max said. "I sent word to Sandeman that I was going to stay here with you."

"What did Father say to that?"

"He never answered. I don't know."

"He might send someone after you." He looked at her worriedly. "He might even send Logan."

"Let 'em try and take me," Max said firmly. Just then Brac gave a little cry in his sleep from the cradle at the foot of the bed, reminding them of how much they had to lose.

"Sandeman has no hold over me any more," she continued. "I'll still help him and his people, but from here. I'm not leaving you again. Every time I do you get in trouble and I'm sick and tired of baling your sorry ass out of jams."

"I don't wanna fight any more, Max," Alec said. He put his arms around her and held her fiercely, burying his face between her breasts. "But if Sandeman tries to take you away, cute little old guy or not, I will kill him, just like I killed Renfro."

Max shuddered slightly at that particular memory. She'd never forget the look in Alec's eyes as he'd snapped that wicked woman's neck -- pure Manticore ... pure assassin ... pure X5-494.

Pure evil? No. Renfro had been the only evil one in the room that night. Alec had been the White Knight ... the hero in spite of himself ... the one who could do what had to be done.

But then Alec had never tried to deny that side of himself, Max realized. And it really wasn't his fault that the 494 part of his personality received an official "designation" before the "Alec" part. Both were him, and always would be -- two halves of the same whole, one never to be denied by the other. If only she could integrate the fractured parts of her own psyche as well as Alec did, she thought wistfully.

"Otto's happy," she said, deliberately changing the subject before she depressed herself.

"Huh?" Alec said. Her bosom was so comfortable he'd apparently started to drift off to sleep.

"Otto's taken over Renfro's position with Sandeman."

"I like Otto," Alec murmured, not trying to keep his eyes open any longer. "I almost trust the guy."

"Because he saved your life?"

"Because he worships the ground I walk on."

Max hit his arm at the smart remark.

"Ow."

"Worships the ground you walk on my ass," she scolded, lifting his head and kissing him fiercely on the lips.

"Yeah, Maxie," Alec murmured as he savored her mouth. "You could learn a thing or two from Otto about what a great guy I am."

"Shut up," she said, pushing him over on his back and climbing on top of him.

As it turned out, Alec wasn't quite as sleepy as she'd thought.

*****
She'd gone back to him -- again. Returned to her own kind, the one who's animal magnetism was irresistible to something primitive within her soul.

But then Logan had always known this was how it would be. From the moment he'd first locked eyes with that young transgenic buck -- when Alec had barged into his apartment, aimed a gun at his head, and spouted off wisecracks like no other X5 he'd ever encountered -- he'd known deep in his heart that this one was a danger to his relationship with Max ... that somehow he just might manage to take her away from him.

And so he had.

Alec. She'd named him that, and he'd followed her home like the cur he was. Her breeding partner. His destiny delayed a bit ... forestalled ... but never really in doubt, at least according to Sandeman's damnable Prophecies. Alec the unpredictable one ... the untrustworthy one ... the wild card. Alec the leader ... the hero ... the sire. He was all of those things, and more ... and less.

But Max loved him -- with all of his potential darkness, his unpredictability, his idiotic schemes, his flaws, his kills -- she loved him.

And she always would.

Her child should have been my son, not his.

With a heavy sigh, Logan stood up from his chair at Sandeman's computer console and motioned to his silent X5 companion, Riley. Time for another blood transfusion. Time to think of another way of getting her away from him.

*****
Half a world away Alec sat cross legged on the ground on the mountainside, watching the sun come up over Chimera -- the name Max had given their island. It was a good name, he thought, appropriate -- but then Max always did have a knack for picking the right thing.

Thank God she picked me.

And most important of all, Max was happy at last. Joshua was happy too, and OC, and Gem, and Mole, and the others who were arriving every day.

So I ought to be happy too, right?

Money wasn't really a problem. Supplies were coming in on every boat. New barracks were going up even as he sat here, plumbing being installed, more generators going online, ammunition enough to arm them for years being hidden in the caves ...

No one could hurt them here, force them into camps or to undergo sterilization. They could have their children, raise them without fear, teach them to be proud of who they were. And eventually, someday, when they were needed, the Army of Chimera would be ready to defend the very humans who right now hated and feared them.

Alec took a deep breath of fresh air. Hell, Max was even going to let him finally get a haircut. Afterall, they both needed to look spiffy to attend that party in Monte Carlo this weekend. They were meeting some scientist guy there who Lydecker said might be willing to continue the DNA research they all needed if they wanted to stay healthy, someone who could see to their medical needs. There were casinos galore in Monte Carlo ... gambling ... He really liked blackjack, although he'd have to be careful he wasn't caught counting cards.

Alec smiled to himself, trying to look forward to the trip. At least he'd be going back to civilization -- hot and cold running water, junk food, wine, women, and song ... all the things he missed out here in the middle of nowhere.Well, maybe not the women part. Max might object to that ... but the rest sure. They still hadn't managed to patch into DirecTV on the island ...

I need my boob tube.

And he and Max would also be traveling to Canada sometime soon, seeking out those X5's, 6's, 7's and 8's who'd fled over the years with the help of Eyes Only. Syl, Krit, Ralph, Bullet, Zero, Bugler, Fix-It ... maybe even Zack and Sam. After all, Max had promised. But it would take a lot of searching, he and Max working together as a team, to bring the Manticore missing to their new home.

Home for now. Home for always?

There was a big battle coming someday, Sandeman said. Not that he and Max would be alive to see it -- but their grandchildren ... great grandchildren maybe ... Otto had tried to explain it to him. White's former trusted aide loved that kind of Prophecy shit. But personally, Alec found it boring, and more than a little bit scary.

I'm not a pawn in some galactic game of chess. I've got free will. No one tells me what to do.

No, he and Max would be long gone by the time the Apocalypse or whatever arrived -- their perfect transgenic bodies gone back to the dust they'd been so artificially created from, a mere memory, or maybe a legend. Yeah, he'd like to be a legend.

Unless, of course, Sandeman was right -- that the stem cells in their blood would not only allow them to heal, but would keep them alive indefinitely ... forever regenerating damaged tissue ... forever keeping them young.

Or my artificially twinned, gene-spliced body could betray me today and I could die tomorrow.

He always kept the tryptophan in his pocket now. So did Max, and most of the others ...

Alec heard a sound behind him and turned to see Joshua approaching.

"Hey, Big Fella," he greeted his friend.

"Alec," Joshua said, grinning. "Max sent me to tell you to come to breakfast. She also said to quit scaring her."

"Scaring her?"

"She woke up and you were gone." He shrugged. "She worries."

"Max always worries," Alec said, making a wry face as he scrambled to his feet and dusted the seat of his jeans off with his hands. "She'd put a bell around my neck if I'd let her. So, what's for breakfast?"

"Pancakes, and little, little sausages," Joshua said, throwing an arm around Alec's shoulders. "Gem cooked."

"So long as it's not chicken again," Alec said. He made a face. "I've had enough chicken, what with Gem and her plucking, to last me a lifetime."

"Alec," Joshua said, stopping.

"What?"

Blue eyes keen, he gazed down at his friend. "Max loves only you. You don't need to keep worrying. And everything is going to be fine. You've done good things here, overcome the darkness. Don't ever doubt yourself about that."

"Was I that obvious?" Alec asked softly, appreciating the warmth of Joshua's arm across his shoulders, as well as his words of comfort.

"Alec still doesn't know Alec."

"Will I ever ... know myself?" he asked, looking down at the compound on the beach far below.

Joshua shrugged. He couldn't answer that question. But he did have one of his own.

"Alec," he said.

Alec looked up at him and grinned. "What, Big Fella?"

"Are you all right now? With Max and the baby ... with Sandeman ... and Lydecker ... with Logan. Are you really all right?"

Alec's eyes slightly lost focus for a moment as he repeated the question to himself, felt out the very fears Joshua had just pointed out, wondered if he was strong enough to do what had to be done after all the horrors he'd been through, not to mention the new ones he might have to face in the future.

Are you all right?

"Hey," he said, coming back, his eyes lighting up with laughter as he got a psychological foothold in the real world again, facade firmly back in place, protecting himself with practiced skill ... hiding. "I'm always all right."

Joshua just shook his head -- and then he hugged him.

THE END

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